The Story of Torah Trope Class at Sof Ma’arav

By Sandra Z. Armstrong

Studying Torah and learning how to read from the Torah is the greatest equalizer of a Jewish Community. It does not matter where you went to school/college, what career you have chosen, where you live, whether you still work or you are retired, who you like or dislike, what your hobbies are, what trope cantillation you ultimately choose, or anything else. What it requires is a commitment to go beyond your everyday life, that often contains a lot of minutiae, in order to clear the way to learn how to read, and accomplish the task of reading out of the Torah. This is our accomplishment at Congregation Sof Ma’arav in the last secular year.

Eventually nine students made the commitment, worked through the fear, and stood up to be counted as Torah readers. There really are no words to describe the beauty of watching a student stand up and read. A student that perhaps just weeks ago could barely get all the Hebrew words, a student who had to spend more time, more days to accomplish what seemed like an enormous task, and then the outcome is here, to stand before God and community in front of their peers and connect ultimately to heaven in a way that they never thought possible. The spurts and starts, the choices of an aliyah, the missed phone calls for help, and the phone calls for celebrations.

The practice times at Sof Ma’arav were after services. Gradually there was an increase in knowledge, in confidence, and in ability to learn the words without vowels. Adding trope musical phrases and conquering the fear of, what if I make a mistake? were the background to the day. No matter what was going on in their lives, or the lives of others around them, they took the time to sit quietly with God, in order to reap the benefits of becoming closer to Him/Her, and to ultimately become closer to the person they were meant to be on earth. It is in the process, the quiet moments of studying Torah, that an individual becomes a holy being. There is no gift greater on earth for me as a teacher than to be a part of the transformation of a student who begins this process of chanting Torah with very little background or knowledge, and then to hear and see with my own eyes the beauty of it unfold on the bimah.

Torah Trope Cantillation

Steps to a successful Torah reading class:

1). The first step is to organize a Torah trope class using “ The Art of Torah Cantillation” by Cantor Marshall Portnoy and Cantor Josee Wolff. This book is particularly helpful because each chapter teaches a specific combination of cantillation of the musical notes or phrases. At the end of each chapter there are examples from the Torah of the clause or phrase that we have just learned. This class is approximately four months long, every Saturday at Sof Ma’arav after our lunch in the Oneg room. Each student is also encouraged to look for trope cantillation on the web and come back to share with the class. In this manner, students are able to learn the current trope phrase in a manner that suits their individual needs.

2). The next step is to teach the musical notes that accompany the trope with a music sheet complete with the names of the notes and trope combinations. During class, I played the actual notes on the piano to confirm the musical cantillation.

3). I had not studied trope that intently for many years nor had I taught this class before, so it became a learning experience for me and everyone else. I had to prep each week and study quite a bit to get ahead of the students. I played the trope on my piano at home and set the pace of our weekly lesson. The next step I took was to send out a weekly email to the trope class to update them on what we are currently studying and encourage their participation along the way.

4) And here is when it got to be a lot of fun, when we came together each week and reviewed. Sometimes we had to have “therapy sessions” on the sounds of the notes and the combinations. Some people couldn’t sit next to others because it would throw their trope singing off. We laughed hard sometimes and we encouraged each other to keep going. Yet, this sense of learning in a community something so important and new became an exciting and enjoyable group effort.

5). The challenge then begins! I purposely waited a couple of months and then sent the email to the class with possible “short” doable Torah readings with easy trope cantillation coming up in the near future. I asked, who wants one and when? I set the bar higher, knowing the class was ready to take the plunge and actually read out of the Torah. Overcoming the fear of standing up at the Torah and reading an aliyah was now becoming an attainable goal.

The end result was a very high success rate of Torah readers. And we are still climbing. What happened was simply a Sof Ma’arav community effort of like-minded individuals who wanted to achieve a goal that once seemed too big to take on alone. As each former student stood up and read, this positive energy encouraged more readers, to the point that even some members of the initial trope class, who were on the periphery of learning to read Torah, came back in full force, learned to read, and have read several times since. In addition, members of the Introduction to Biblical Hebrew class decided they wanted to become Torah readers too. In my opinion, Torah reading is attainable for anyone with the desire to do so and the encouragement of a community. Now Torah reading by these incredible students is commonplace among us. Who would have ever thought? Will I teach another Torah trope reading class? Of course!

Todah rabah to Hefcibah, Les, Chad, Bill, Linda, Michelle, Tamara, Risa and Marc who showed me the possibilities of human connection to the Almighty with great joy resulting in the powerful impact of a community based achievement.